Last week I started this Series “God and Buddhism.” If you have a moment please see last week’s post for a general orientation on the series.
Over the past two centuries Buddhism has migrated to the West along with other religions of Asia.
Yet very few westerners, even those that purport to be Buddhists, know much about Buddhist culture or how many different cultures and variations of Buddhism have developed since the founding of the religion 2500 years ago.
My own studies of Buddhism, which have spanned the past 25 years, has been primarily in the Theravada tradition, which is also known as Vipassana.
Other than a relatively small handful of dedicated students, most people who talk about Buddhism, even many who say they are Buddhists, are not aware that Theravada Buddhist teachers clearly assert there is no God of any kind.
The purpose of this series is not to say that those who are committed atheists should somehow realize they are mistaken and that they should convert to a God centered path. Neither am I wishing to “take the side” of conservative Christians who engage in polemical debate trying to prove that Christianity is a better and a truer tradition. But without a nuanced review of this series, I can understand why anyone might still think this is my agenda.
To address this point I wish to be very clear. If you feel one of the traditions of Buddhism is the right path to explore or commit your life to then by all means do so. The bottom-line is that the errors of Buddhism are fewer in number, as a general rule, than the errors of Christianity or Judaism, or Islam. And, despite the errors of any one of these traditions, I strongly believe each of them also teaches doctrines of profound value.
My point is to encourage people who are studying Buddhism, or any other religion to ask good, honest, and searching questions about the foundations of Buddhist culture. Two good sources which will give rise to plenty of questions are the ancient texts themselves. The following are two collections of the foundation texts of Theravada Buddhism.
The Long Discourses of The Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya translated by Maurice Walsh, Wisdom Books Somerville, MA 2012
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya translated by two Buddhist monks Bhikku Nanamoli and Bhikku Bodhi Wisdom Books Somerville, MA 2009
Given what I have been told by Theravada Buddhist monks and lay teachers about the tradition being a firmly atheist culture I was surprised to find how many passages sounded like those from a God centered, or polytheistic, faith tradition.
Here are three good examples spoken by the Buddha.
“Then that a disciplined monk, after death, at the break-up of the body, should attain to union with Brahma-that is possible.” The Long Discourses of The Buddha A Translation of the Digha Nikaya (Sutta 13 page 195) translated by Maurice Walsh, Wisdom Books Somerville, MA 2012
“And at that time Sakka, lord of the Gods, felt a strong desire to see the Lord (Buddha).”
“Sakka, surrounded by the thirty-three Gods…vanished from the heaven of the thirty-three and appeared in Magada (a town in ancient India)”
bid Sutta 21 page 321
It is true that in Sutta 21 Sakka, (once again who is entitled the Lord of the Gods) then bows down to the Buddha three times and designates him as the supremely enlightened one. It is true one could see this as a transfer of authority from the Gods to humans.
But still in these phrases “Lord of the Gods” and “….”the heaven of the thirty-three Gods,” is it really so hard to see these as early images of God and heaven?
Are these really the words and images of an atheist culture?
All that I am trying to say is that the Buddhist texts contain many, many images of God and heaven and devas (angels). To say the only conclusion from studying the Buddhist texts is that there is no God, or even that Buddha taught there is no God, is far from the only valid conclusion possible.
More next week.
will at meditation practice dot com ( spelled out to limit spam)